As I was growing up, I often heard my mother complain about the traffic here in the Napa Valley.
“The traffic on Highway 29 is awful,” she would say almost daily, often adding, “There are more cars this year than last year, and I think it’s only going to get worse.”
Up to this point, her prophetic words have been right on the money. Traffic in the Napa Valley has gotten steadily worse, and it is likely that this trend will continue, at least for the next few years.
The source of Napa Valley traffic is arguably centered on expanding tourism, partially caused by the tourists themselves (roughly 20 percent of all the traffic, by some estimates) but more so by the need to service the tourists, with some service workers traveling great distances, commuting into the valley to work in tasting rooms, restaurants and other service-related industries. This is largely because the cost of living is so high here that most of them can’t actually live where they work.
Talk with the valley’s old guard long enough and traffic is sure to come up as either a consistent annoyance or a source of potential increase in income. No doubt you have an opinion on this topic, too. You might believe that the Napa Valley should have more public transit or that tourists and commuters should park outside the valley and be brought in on trains. I’ve even heard folks talk about setting up a tollbooth and charging high fees for people to enter into our little valley, likening this place to other national treasures, such as Yosemite or the Grand Canyon.
As I drive up and down the valley, I find the increase in traffic as annoying as anyone else, but I’m not too worried about it. Here is why: In the coming years, automation is expected to lessen traffic significantly.
Self-driving cars will change the way we think of travel.
In 2017, if you live in Los Angeles and you and your friends decide to visit the Napa Valley for the weekend you might all take a morning flight from LAX and land at SFO. Once there, you will likely rent a car and drive up to Napa, arriving sometime in the mid-afternoon. After checking in at the hotel, you might then drive up the valley to sneak in a tasting at a winery and then head to dinner in Yountville. Afterward, you’ll drive and park your vehicle in the hotel’s parking lot, repeating the pattern for the duration of your stay.
However, in the future the vast majority of people will not have their own vehicles but will instead have subscription services to transportation companies such as Uber and Lyft. These services will pick up, transport and deliver their subscribers whenever and wherever they’d like to go for a monthly fee.
So in the future, from your home in Los Angeles you will likely just order up a self-driving sleeper van to take you from L.A. to Napa in the dead of night. During the trip. you will sleep, arriving refreshed at your first stop of the day. The vehicle that brings you will not park but instead head to its next assignment, stopping only briefly to recharge at an automated center.
When you and your friends need transport to another location, you’ll order up a ride via your mobile device and then head to dinner. The automated car will pick you up, drop you off and then, like the van, it will move on to the next transportation request.
No more parking lots or metered parking.
With vast fleets of self-driving cars and people using their subscription transportation services, traffic will decrease, and there are likely to be no space-wasting parking lots or vast car dealership lots anymore. Cars will have no need to be parked because they will either be transporting or in mechanized refurbishment centers being repaired, refueled or cleaned. Cars will be purchased directly from the producer by the transportation company, eliminating the need for middlemen.
The efficiency of transportation will ensure less tourist traffic, but that will not be its biggest impact. Because there will be no need for Uber drivers, parking lot attendants, police to check meters, gas station attendants, car salespeople — all of whom will be eliminated — and because most other service jobs will be replaced by automatic or robot-type interactions, too, workers who currently travel in from great distances will no longer be needed.
Traffic in the Napa Valley has never been worse than it is today. Mom, you’ve been right up to this point, but look for things to radically change — for good and ill — in the coming years as technology continues to penetrate our lives.